Does your car’s exhaust smell like rotten eggs? Has your gas mileage tanked? Have you lost power in your highway on-ramp sprint? If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, then it might be time to give your vehicle’s catalytic converter a closer look.
When it comes to your vehicle’s tailpipe emissions, catalytic converters play a crucial role. These metal boxes of magic convert the harmful byproducts of gasoline combustion, such carbon monoxide, into less harmful substances like carbon dioxide and water.
Catalytic converters are part of every modern vehicle’s exhaust system. While robust, they aren’t invincible. Eventually, the time may come to have it replaced.
Catalytic converters are mounted to a vehicle’s exhaust system in one of two ways – either bolted up or welded in. Replacing a catalytic converter that is bolted in is a relatively straightforward swap. However, one that is welded into the exhaust system is a far more involved replacement that will require the use of specialized equipment, such as an angle grinder and a welder.
Often you can easily locate your catalytic converter by looking under your vehicle. Keep in mind that every vehicle is different and there may be a scenario where the catalytic converter is not easily visible, such as when it is a combined unit within the engine’s exhaust header. Also, be aware that many vehicles can have more than one catalytic converter present.
If you are having a hard time finding the catalytic converter, or if you have discovered that it is welded into the exhaust system, then it may be best to call on a professional’s help.
Cost of Catalytic Converter Replacement
The cost to replace a catalytic converter can vary greatly depending on the make and model of the vehicle. Something to also consider are labor costs, which will come into play should you have a mechanic do the job. Some catalytic converters are more difficult to access than others which will increase the amount of labor required, thus increasing the cost of the repair.
To get in the ballpark of how much you can expect to spend on this repair, you’ll first want to find out how much the catalytic converter itself costs.
Below is a chart of catalytic converter price ranges for popular vehicle makes in the United States.
|Ford||$120 – $2,100|
|Chevrolet||$80 – $2,000|
|Hyundai||$80 – $1,600|
|Nissan||$150 – $2,200|
|Kia||$380 – $650|
|Dodge||$100 – $3,470|
|Toyota||$150 – $1,500|
|Honda||$70 – $1,600|
|Subaru||$200 – $600|
|Mazda||$300 – $1,100|
Something to consider is that not all catalytic converters are created equal.
You may find an aftermarket catalytic converter that is a fraction of the price of an original one from the vehicle’s manufacturer. This is because the vehicle manufacturer must make the catalytic converter out of expensive materials that allow it to pass emission testing in all 50 states. This includes California, one of the strictest emission-testing states. Before purchasing a catalytic converter, be sure that it is rated, at a minimum, to pass the emissions requirements of your state.
Check Your Warranty
Before you drain your piggybank on a catalytic converter replacement, you might want to check your vehicle manufacturer’s catalytic converter warranty to see if the part is still covered.
This information can usually be found in the vehicle’s owner’s manual. It’s not uncommon to find a warranty that covers up to 8 years or 80,000 miles, whichever comes first. If your vehicle falls within the warranty criteria, then the replacement could be free of charge.
Where to Get Your Catalytic Converter Replaced?
If you’re looking for quality work that is backed up by the vehicle’s manufacturer, then you may consider taking your vehicle to a dealership’s service department. Since dealers are affiliated with the manufacturer, they often have access to genuine parts, factory-trained technicians, and are well-versed in what resources the repair requires. However, going this route will be the most expensive compared to any of the other options.
Independent specialist auto repair centers can also cost a pretty penny. They could charge as much as $117 per hour. However, these shops are often staffed with highly-trained technicians and the latest tools and equipment, making them a viable alternative to the dealership experience.
Smaller, general auto repair shops will be the least costly option and could start with labor rates as low as $40 an hour. You can still have a successful experience at these shops. Often, non-genuine parts are used which can save you some money. However, repairs could take slightly longer since the shop does not specialize in a specific line of vehicles. Consequently, they also may not have the specialist tools to streamline the repair.
Catalytic converter replacements are considered a common service item that most repair shops offer; however, this doesn’t mean it will be an inexpensive ordeal.
The repair can certainly have a high cost based on the associated labor and part costs required for your specific vehicle. As a guideline, expect to pay a labor rate of $65-$100 an hour.
Here is a list of a few trusted auto repair shops in the US:
- NAPA AutoCare Center
- Firestone Complete Auto Case
- STS Tire and Auto Centers
- Lee Miles Transmissions
It’s always a good idea to get a few estimates and ask about included warranties before you make a final decision.
How Do You Know If Your Catalytic Converter Needs To Be Replaced?
Catalytic converters usually last at least 10 years under normal vehicle usage with regular vehicle servicing. Even still, there’s always the possibility that the catalytic converter could become damaged before the typical 10-year window. If you suspect something is wrong with the catalytic converter, you may want to diagnose the part before diving right into replacing it.
Now, before you can get into testing your catalytic converter, you’ll first want to verify that you know where it is on your vehicle.
Catalytic converters are placed directly after the engine’s exhaust header, but before the exhaust muffler. For gasoline vehicles manufactured in 1996 and later, there will be oxygen sensors located before and after the catalytic converter. If you have found a metallic box in the exhaust system that meets all the above criteria, then you more than likely have located your catalytic converter.
There are a few easy methods for diagnosing a faulty catalytic converter. One method is by simply by using your nose while standing next to your vehicle. If your exhaust has an overpowering rotten egg scent, then there’s a chance the catalytic converter is shot.
A second method is done by using your ears. Does the catalytic converter make an internal rattling sound? If so, be sure that the noise isn’t coming from a loose exhaust heat shield. If you’re sure the noise is coming from the catalytic converter, then this points to a dislodging of the catalytic converter’s internal element, which leads to an exhaust blockage.
If your Check Engine Light (CEL) is on, this could also point to something wrong with your catalytic converter.
If your vehicle was manufactured in 1996 or later (which means it has an OBDII system), take it to an auto parts store that offers free code reading (such as Advance Auto Parts) to see what CEL codes are stored. If the codes are related to the downstream oxygen sensor circuits (codes P0420 or P0430), then there is potentially something wrong with the catalytic converter. However, this is not a guarantee as there could be another variable causing the code to be thrown.
In addition to the simple tests mentioned above, there are a couple of more advanced tests you can do to check your catalytic converter’s operation.
The first advanced test is to check the temperature of the catalytic converter at its entry and exit points. To begin, you’ll need to bring your vehicle up to operating temperature by driving it around for about 10 minutes. Afterwards, bring the vehicle to a complete stop. With the engine still running, locate the catalytic converter.
Using an infrared thermometer, record the temperature at the catalytic converter’s entry point. Next, use the thermometer to record the temperature at the exit point of the catalytic converter. If the exit temperature is equal to or lower than the entry temperature, then this indicates the catalytic converter is underperforming and it should be replaced.
The second advanced test is to use a scan tool that can visually show the lambda wave reported by the post-catalytic converter oxygen sensor. With the catalytic converter at operating temperature, the oxygen sensor should report a constant, stable signal (depicted on a graph as a mostly straight line). This signifies that the catalytic converter is performing efficiently. If the signal shows a sinusoidal wave, then the catalytic converter has more than likely failed.
Why Does Your Car Need A Catalytic Converter?
Internal combustion vehicles emit pollutants that are harmful to the environment. The main pollutants that result from the combustion process are carbon monoxide (CO) and nitric oxides (NOx). The catalytic converter transforms these pollutants into more environmentally-friendly carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen (N2) and water vapor (H2O).
Inside of a catalytic converter is a honeycomb-like structure that is made up of metals such as platinum, palladium, or rhodium. When the catalytic converter is up to operating temperature, the exhaust pollutants that pass through it react with the metals that make up the honeycomb structure. This results in the more environmentally-friendly emissions out the tailpipe.
While the catalytic converter is an efficient and effective emissions component, it isn’t perfect. You can expect a working catalytic converter to transform up to around 90 percent of a vehicle’s pollutants.
Reasons Why Catalytic Converters Fail
Catalytic converters can fail for a multitude of reasons, but we’ll talk about some of the more common culprits leading to this component’s premature death.
Contamination is arguably the most common cause of catalytic converter failure. Ultimately, contamination stems from the vehicle’s engine running inefficiently.
An ignition system failure, such as fouled spark plug, a broken ignition wire, or a failed coil pack will cause the engine to run rough. The cylinder that is no longer igniting will dump raw fuel into the exhaust system and feed it directly into the catalytic converter. Because the catalytic converter is very hot at operating temperature, this raw fuel ends up igniting in the catalytic converter itself. Over time, the catalytic converter’s internal honeycomb structure will melt and plug up.
Oil consumption, caused by either worn valve guide seals or worn piston rings, as well as coolant leaks, resulting from a damaged head gasket, can also lead to catalytic converter contamination. When these fluids make it into the exhaust system, they create a solid buildup inside of the catalytic converter which will lead to a reduced chemical reaction efficiency, and ultimately, exhaust blockage.
A less common but more obvious cause of catalytic converter failure is external damage. Road debris, corrosion, and fractures in the catalytical converter’s metal casing can all lead to a non-functioning component. If you can see a visible defect from the exterior of the catalytic converter, then this very well could be the cause of why the part has failed.
What Happens If You Do Not Replace Your Catalytic Converter?
If you don’t replace your failed catalytic converter, then the most immediate issue will be your vehicle’s inability to pass an emissions test. The catalytic converter is the vehicle’s most vital emissions-reducing component, and without out it, there’s no chance of the vehicle’s tailpipe emissions being within the legal limits.
The secondary issues resulting from catalytic converter failure will be a drop in performance from the vehicle. Reduced fuel economy and engine power can be expected. These side effects will only become worse the longer a bad catalytic converter is present.
How To Avoid Damaging Your Vehicle’s Catalytic Converter?
The best way to ensure your vehicle’s catalytic converter stays in good health is to keep the engine running at its best.
Don’t ignore that Check Engine Light – it likely indicates the engine isn’t running efficiently and could be contaminating the catalytic converter. If you continue to let your vehicle run inefficiently, it will often cost you more in the long run. Parts such as the catalytic converter will begin to fail, compounding the ultimate cost to repair your vehicle.
Regular servicing such as oil changes, air filter replacements, spark plug replacements and fuel filter replacements can go a long way in keeping your vehicle happy and making your catalytic converter last.